The most striking and viral image of the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his G20 visit is not from an official engagement. But, him holding a red umbrella, walking barefoot in the rain at the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi with his wife Akshata Murty wearing a yellow and red salwar-kameez. Many interesting photo captions emerged, some pointed at calling it a couple's goal, the others said, “an Indian and her husband”. The Prime Minister with his wife prayed at the temple, as Sunak openly took pride in his faith, drawing strength from it. "I am hugely proud of my Indian roots and my connections to India ... being a proud Hindu means I will always have a connection to India and the people of India," Sunak said. “Two nations, one ambition. An ambition rooted in our shared values, the connection between our people and – of course – our passion for cricket,” he added.
Representing the living bridge
Amid all the chaos and murmurs around the slipping hopes of completion of the Free Trade Agreement between India and the UK, Mr Sunak landed in India last week for the G20 World Leaders’ Summit and received a grand welcome from his relatives in New Delhi. This visit marks a historic moment for the” living bridge” wherein, he became the first British PM of Indian origin to visit his homeland as a global leader. All eyes were on every step he took and every hand he shook, the prayers he said and the gestures he made during this trip with his wife - the daughter of Indian tycoon N. R. Narayana Murthy and philanthropist Sudha Murthy.
Speaking to Asian Voice at an EXCLUSIVE interview in August 2023, Mr Sunak said that he was looking forward to visiting India as a representation of the UK’s 1.7 million ‘living bridge’. “I am always excited to visit India, particularly in this the way that you describe (first British Indian PM of the UK) will be special,” said the PM. “And I'm a representation of a living bridge between our two countries. So, it will be a particularly memorable moment and meaningful to me personally.”
While Sunak may not be elected by British citizens, history will remain kind to him for the attempt to restore the economy and forge global alliances, especially with India, which will be instrumental in the next general elections for the Conservative Party. His unapologetic stance of how he believes in his faith - Hinduism and yet he’s a British man who lives in a country populated predominantly by Christians; he paints his picture as a person who doesn’t use faith in the garb of a vote bank.
On the other hand, this approach has seemingly won more supporters for the Conservatives, which might shift the donation banks from the Labour Party to the Conservatives. Despite this momentous opportunity, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer is also leaving no stone unturned to project that India is a solid ally of Britain. Talking about the working relationship between the UK and India should he become the next PM of Britain, Sir Starmer said during the UK-India week, “I think that relationship should be a respectful, open relationship, that’s based on the future, not the past.” Regarding the UK-India FTA, he also added, “In our strategic partnership, it goes way beyond just the trade.”
Sunak, who visited the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi, was then greeted by swamis, as well as senior leaders from Akshardham Mandir, who relayed a special message on behalf of His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj, spiritual leader of BAPS. His Holiness had extended his personal wishes and prayers for him and the other delegates. He wrote, “In the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, we pray for you and all the attendees: May the summit be a resounding success in collectively helping the whole world towards peace, righteous prosperity, and global harmony.”
Brahmavihari Swami, the senior swami of the sanstha, added: “It was an honour to welcome the Prime Minister to Swaminarayan Akshardham and share His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj’s message of peace, unity and public service. The UK’s relationship with India is built on a bond of friendship and fostered by cultural exchanges as well as a vibrant Indian diaspora in the UK. We were delighted to strengthen this relationship through this visit.”
FTA - The elephant in the room
Reviewing progress on the India-UK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the works, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rishi Sunak agreed that ministers and negotiating teams would continue “to work at pace” towards an agreement. “We discussed ways to deepen trade linkages and boost investment. India and the UK will keep working for a prosperous and sustainable planet,” Modi said on social media after a bilateral meeting with PM Sunak on the sidelines of the ongoing G-20 summit.
“Two nations, one ambition. An ambition rooted in our shared values, the connection between our people and, of course, our passion for cricket,” Sunak said in turn.
“Both leaders also reviewed the progress of Free Trade Agreement negotiations and expressed hope that the remaining issues could be addressed at the earliest so that a balanced, mutually beneficial and forward-looking Free Trade Agreement is concluded soon,” an official statement after the talks said.
On the FTA, Sunak’s office said in a statement that Sunak reiterated the UK’s ambition to “deliver a landmark trade deal which benefits businesses and workers in both countries and grows our trade in both goods and services”.
The statement also said that Sunak congratulated Modi on India’s “consummate” Presidency of the G-20 this year, which has demonstrated India’s “vital global leadership and influence”.
“The leaders reflected on the close and growing ties between the U.K. and India, exemplified in the ‘living bridge’ between our people. They agreed it was important to build on the past and focus on the future, cementing a modern partnership in cutting-edge defence technology, trade and innovation. They also discussed a number of consular issues,” it added.
Modi has invited Sunak for a bilateral visit at an early, mutually convenient date for a more detailed discussion, and Sunak accepted the invitation.
"For the record, let me declare that as is a matter of public record, I and my family are of Indian origin. My wife and her family are Indian citizens with financial interests in India,” Rishi Sunak said about Akshata Murty’s shares in Infosys.
Rishi Sunak also highlighted his three key aims of the India visit, which included increasing diplomatic pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, climate action and strengthening ties with India.
"I held warm and productive discussions with Prime Minister Modi on strengthening our relationship in defence, technology and a free trade deal between our nations,” Rishi Sunak said.
Sunak to make two trips to India?
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is reportedly set to make two trips to India. While hopes for a post-Brexit trade deal with India before the summit have dimmed, progress has been made, and officials are increasingly optimistic about reaching an agreement by year-end.
Sunak, a cricket enthusiast, is considering a second visit to India in late October or early November to potentially finalise the trade deal during the Cricket World Cup. England is scheduled to play India on October 29, and plans for this second visit are tentatively being made.
The outcome depends on the progress in September's trade negotiations and whether Sunak and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can find common ground at the G20 summit. Sunak emphasised that he would only agree to a trade deal that benefits the entire UK during a Cabinet meeting.
While UK-India relations are generally positive, India views the UK's softened stance toward China with suspicion, adding a diplomatic challenge for Sunak in balancing relationships with these two rising powers.
City of London Corporation responds to new UK-India Economic and Financial Dialogue
The City of London Corporation participated in the India-UK Financial Partnership (IUKFP) and supported economic and financial commitments with India. This includes a new infrastructure initiative, the UK-India Infrastructure Financing Bridge (UKIIFB), aimed at leveraging London's expertise for sustainable investment in India. Chris Hayward, Policy Chairman at City of London Corporation, highlighted the strength of the UK-India partnership in financial and professional services.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's relatives in India hosted a grand celebration in his honour, complete with a feast, flower bouquets, and non-stop dancing to Punjabi music. Dr Gautam Dev Sood, a maternal uncle of Prime Minister Sunak of Punjabi heritage, revealed that all relatives were invited to the Indian capital to mark his visit.
Subhash Berry, Sunak's paternal uncle, mentioned that although exact details were not disclosed, a plan was in place to welcome the Prime Minister. The celebration featured lively beats of traditional Punjabi music, with some English tunes thrown in for good measure. However, due to an intense work schedule for the G20 summit and bilateral talks, Sunak himself was unlikely to attend the event.
Despite having extended family in northern India, most of Murty's relatives live in Karnataka. Sunak humorously mentioned that his family's political discussions typically revolve around cricket, where he agreed that his daughters could support the Indian cricket team in exchange for their support for England in football.
In an email interview leading up to his visit to New Delhi for the G20 summit, Sunak expressed his pride in his Indian heritage and Hindu identity, emphasising his lasting connection to India and its people. He spoke of maintaining a separation between politics and family when discussing Indian politics, technology, or governance issues with his in-laws. However, he acknowledged the influence of his wife, daughters, parents, and in-laws in shaping his values.
He expressed immense pride in his parents-in-law's journey from humble beginnings to building one of the world's largest and most respected companies, aiming to create opportunities for success in both India and the UK.
The release of Jagtar Singh Johal
Over 70 Members of Parliament have called on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to advocate for the release of Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scottish Sikh imprisoned in India for nearly six years. Johal was arrested in 2017 while attending his wedding in Punjab, allegedly taken away in an unmarked car. The Sikh Federation revealed that MPs from different parties have written to Sunak, urging him to seek Johal's immediate release during his visit to India, where trade negotiations are ongoing.
SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes argued that Johal's arbitrary detention should challenge the basis of any trade deal, emphasising transparency, the rule of law, and Johal's rights. Dabinderjit Singh, from the Sikh Federation, called on Sunak to stand up for Johal, warning against appeasing India while discriminating against him based on his Sikh activism.
Amnesty International called on Sunak to address India's human rights record at the G20 Summit in New Delhi. They expressed concern over alleged harassment, arbitrary arrests, and restrictions on critics and journalists under Prime Minister Modi's leadership, along with hate speech and violence against minority groups, particularly Muslims. Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, urged Sunak not to let trade deal talks silence these concerns.